Friday, February 12, 2010

"When You Come to a Fork in the Road . . .

take it." So sayeth that noted Twentieth-century philosopher Yogi Berra.

We parked our truck in Tubac, AZ and wanted lunch. In one direction was a quasi-fast food place. Equidistant in the other direction was Shelby’s Bistro. I saw a shop called Accent on Mexico in Shelby’s direction, and that determined our choice. The search for a Mexican pottery liquid soap dispenser led us to one of the best meals we had while in the Tucson area.

Walk past a row of colorful shops and across a small footbridge, and you come to Shelby’s dining patio. It was a little cool for al fresco dining that day, so we elected to eat inside.

The dining area was sparsely but tastefully decorated. Just over the entrance foyer hung a giant modernistic chandelier, and along one wall was a row of giant wine bottles.

The lunch menu is a mix of pastas, salads, sandwiches, and pizzas, many with a Southwest flair. (The special that noon was Southwest Fish and Chips.)

I momentarily flirted with the prosciutto, basil, and mozzarella sandwich on flatbread, but lately have had an intense craving for fish and seafood, so ordered the Blackened Ahi Tuna Salad. Chuck ordered the Soup of the Day – Black Bean – and then he threw me a curve. For his meal he chose the Black Bean Burger with fries.

I am used to seeing black bean soups where the beans have been run through a blender or food processor until they become a smooth puree. So I was surprised to see that Chuck’s soup contained whole beans floating in a stock with cilantro, carrots, and onion and seasoned with cumin. It was delicious. The beans were cooked through, but hadn’t turned to mush and the light broth contained just enough cilantro and cumin (neither are his favorite seasonings).

The black bean burger came on a ciabatta roll (did you know that ciabatta means "carpet slipper"?) and was topped with pepper jack cheese and sautéed red onions. The patty was a combination of mashed and whole beans that were mixed with corn and diced red pepper and again seasoned with smoky cumin. What made the sandwich especially pleasing was the crisp and crunchy exterior. He took one bite, looked at me, and proclaimed: “This is really good! This is really, really good.”

Now I normally view a “veggie” burger as having the texture of sawdust (and sawdust has more flavor), but this was an extraordinary sandwich. The accompanying fries were battered and seasoned. I would normally assume that they came frozen from a bag, but given the quality of our meals, I suspect that the fries were made in house.

I have been forced to reconsider my rule about fish and seafood. You know, the rule that you don’t eat either when more than 150 to 200 miles from an ocean, gulf, or bay. I have had amazing fish in Arizona and the ahi tuna may have been the most amazing. Seated on a bed of baby green and topped with a tomato, red onion, cilantro, and ginger salsa, the tuna was perfect. It had been cooked medium rare as ordered with only a hint of blackening seasoning (this is a good thing). I gave Chuck a taste (he is not a tuna man), and he was surprised that it bore no relationship to Chicken of the Sea. What made this dish so spectacular was the addition of finely chopped ginger in the salsa. The kitchen was prudent in the use of the ginger, so that only in every third or fourth forkful did you get the zing and heat.

With the salad came a hollowed artichoke heart stuffed with corn and a slice of warm garlic focaccia. The herb vinaigrette for the greens was a subtle mixture of oil, vinegar, and assorted herbs and didn’t interfere or overwhelm the flavor of the tuna.

This was an extraordinary lunch. While I didn’t find my Mexican soap dispenser, we found yet a third (along with Ocotillo Café and Café a la C’Art) wonderful Tucson area restaurant. Like the other two, we award Shelby’s Bistro a 5.0 Addie rating.

Ever wonder why so many of the restaurants we rate get scores between 4.0 and 5.0 Addies? It’s because we don’t tell you about the others. You will never read about the Jewish deli where we has some of the worst chopped chicken liver ever or the Chinese restaurant that is supposed to be one of the top five in Tucson. I feel sorry for the Chinese food-loving citizens of Tucson. Why waste my time writing and yours reading about bad food?

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